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I was actually the one who requested a coffee meeting when I got an invitation to a store event hosted by Neely and Chloe Burch celebrating the accessories brand they launched in September, Neely & Chloe. Sisters, they're also the nieces of Tory Burch and Chris Burch, the founder of C. Wonder. Their cousins are Pookie and Louisa Burch of Trademark.
Nepotism is weird: Though it runs rampant in the fashion industry, it's still greeted with a degree of suspicion. And yet if you hear that someone important's young relative has entered the fray, you're going to ask for more information. You're probably going to write about it.
So here we are.
I met up with Neely and Chloe Burch, 25 and 24, for breakfast on a Wednesday morning in early October. Both have the ingrained self-confidence of class presidents, meaning they were excellent at making small talk while we waited for their publicist, who wasn't even late. They're currently in the middle of moving their operations out of a WeWork and into a proper studio, they explained as we sat down. That these Burches would start out in a coworking space immediately seemed right, since they discuss Neely & Chloe with an upbeat lucidity similar to the way tech startup founders explain the opportunities they envision stretching out before them.
At this point, Neely & Chloe sells handbags, wallets, and footwear — loafers and slippers — all for under $300 on its own website and in a pop-up store on Bleecker Street. The Burches are targeting the sort of woman in her early 20s to mid-30s who's over buying trendy bags at Zara that break within the month but whose salary doesn't yet accommodate designer purchases. With their focus on clean, restrained design, though, Neely and Chloe Burch hope to grab the eye of women their mother's age as well as teenagers.
When my editor looked through the brand's website, she commented, "These are handbags that look like handbags." What she meant is that they're the purest distillation of what a bag looks like today. Their shapes and textures are appealingly of-the-moment — structurally minimalist, absent of logos, and built in leather with a tasteful amount of gold hardware (not much) — but there's also not that much remarkable about them. If you surf over to Everlane, you'll find a nearly identical leather tote and fancy backpack at a slightly higher price point.
To distinguish their purses, the Burches have cleverly tapped into another trend that retailers have swarmed recently: personalization through monogramming, patchwork, and pins.
Neely & Chloe offers speedy initial embossing in-store and online ($4 per letter), and customers can have their bags hand-painted by local artists with a turnaround time of one to three weeks ($100 to $200, depending on the design). The accessories section of the website is filled with luggage tags shaped like the Eiffel Tower and London phone booths, as well as brooches shaped like bees, lizards, and eggs that can be affixed to the leather and swapped out with the aid of a little screwdriver.
The line arose from an earlier retail concept of Neely's, called Neely by VNB. After leaving her first post-graduate job at Sotheby's, she retrofitted an Airstream trailer and turned it into a boutique that traveled up and down the East Coast selling a mix of brands like Superga, Dolce Vita, Joie, and Tory Burch. It catered primarily to college students, but Neely discovered in the process that those young women were pretty happy with their shopping options: They either bought inexpensive pieces at H&M and Zara, she says, or had parents willing to buy them higher-ticket items. The demographic Neely became more interested in serving was women who'd been in the workforce for under a decade, with a taste for quality product but a relatively small shopping budget.
The plan for Neely by VNB was always to introduce an in-house brand, but when Chloe left her job in merchandising at J.Crew's corporate offices to join her sister, the two decided to go all-in on making their own product.
"[Neely by VNB] was really operationally heavy and took a lot of people and a lot of hours to execute, so we decided to transition abruptly rather than gradually when Chloe came on," Neely says.
Today, the Neely & Chloe team comprises just four people full-time. Their pop-up retail space has a minuscule storage area, so the sisters have been using their shared apartment to house the overflow product. While the business is clearly a grind — they're the ones unpacking shipments for hours on end, Chloe says — the Burches are well aware of the advantages conferred by their connections in the fashion industry.
"It's there," Neely says of the extended Burch family. "It would be ridiculous to try and pretend it wasn't, or to ignore it."
The sisters raised $1.25 million in seed funding from family, friends, and angel investors. Through one of those backers, they entered into a six-month contract with a product development consultant with 25 years of experience in the industry who hooked them up with manufacturers in South Korea, China, and Brazil. The chief financial officer of their father's investment firm helped with their numbers and projections. Tory Burch makes time to offer advice.
The question looming over Neely and Chloe Burch, really, is whether they're qualified to start a fashion brand. They are only a few years out of college, with little experience in the working world, and yet, with their access to resources and advice, what twentysomethings could possibly be better prepared to launch a fashion brand? Does someone starting from nothing have more right to this world than they do?
Neely finds that her and her sister's passion for building their brand becomes clear once people engage them in conversation about it. "It really comes across that it's not just," and for emphasis she flips into a ditzier register, "We like handbags, we think they're fun, let's make some!"
As she points out, she and her sister could be making a lot more money getting into a different business.
Neely & Chloe's success will come down to product and execution, anyway — not its founders's family. Their cousins have set a good precedent with Trademark, which has won over retailers like Barneys, Lane Crawford, and Maryam Nassir Zadeh since it launched in 2013, and which recently pivoted away from the clothing business to sell only accessories. Neely & Chloe may be less editorial than that line, which occupies the artier corner of the minimalist cool girl spectrum, but it could very well manage to hit the mark with a wider range of stylish sorts. If you need a handbag that looks like a handbag, it's a no-brainer.